Will other states follow California on clean energy?
It’s been less than four months since California committed to getting all of its electricity from climatefriendly sources by 2045. But the idea is already catching on in other states.
At least nine governors taking their oaths of office this month, from Nevada to Michigan to New York, campaigned on 100 percent clean energy, or have endorsed the target since it was enshrined in California law. The District of Columbia also set a 100 percent clean energy goal last month. So did Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based utility that serves 3.6 million electricity customers across eight Western and Midwestern states.
The policy’s growing popularity is driven in part by market trends and technological advances that make it easier to envision a future in which fossil fuels are no longer burned for electricity. But experts say California’s recent passage of Senate Bill 100 is also playing a role.
“Sometimes other states don’t want to admit that they’re looking to California for leadership. But they really are,” said Carla Frisch from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank that has worked with cities and states on energy policy.
As the world’s fifth-largest economy, California wields enormous power to influence environmental policy nationally and even globally. The state’s actions have reshaped how industries do business, changed people’s habits and set the agenda for other states and countries. Automakers, for instance, have been forced to build increasingly fuel-efficient cars for decades because of California’s authority to set tailpipe-emission rules stricter than those of the federal government.
The Golden State’s aggressive policies can also prompt a backlash. In the four-plus years since California lawmakers voted to ban singleuse plastic bags at most stores, nine states have passed laws blocking local governments from enacting such bans.
California’s role as a global leader was front of mind of then-state Sen. Kevin de Leon as he crafted the 100 percent climate-friendly energy legislation. The Los Angeles Democrat had previously written a bill raising the state’s clean energy target to 50 percent by 2030. But within a few years, it had become clear the state could meet that goal far sooner than expected, without the massive economic disruption opponents had predicted.
“California has long shown the rest of the nation how to protect the environment while growing the economy,” De Leon said. “If California can do it, everyone else can.”
What’s unique about 100 percent clean energy, supporters say, is that it’s caught on with lawmakers and the public in a way other climate change policies haven’t.
Many economists say a market-based tool that puts a price on planet-warming carbon emissions is the cheapest way to fight climate change. But even in places with broad support for climate action, it’s been difficult to build support for those types of policies. Voters in Washington state, for instance, overwhelmingly rejected a carbon tax in 2016 and again in 2018.
How a tax on carbon has divided Northwest climate activists »
Adam Browning, executive director of the Oaklandbased advocacy group Vote Solar, cited a common refrain among climate advocates — that the only two problems with a carbon tax are “carbon” and “tax.” Nobody likes taxes, and most people don’t have strong feelings about carbon.
A 100 percent clean energy policy, on the other hand, is simple and focused on positive change, Browning said. Supporters can highlight the potential benefits of cleaner air, job creation and cuttingedge technologies.
“It’s exciting to be a part of, it speaks to values, it speaks to solutions, and it speaks to things people like. And it has overwhelming bipartisan support,” Browning said.
The concept didn’t originate in California. Hawaii became the first state to pass a 100 percent clean energy mandate in 2015, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, introduced federal legislation to that effect in 2017. More than 100 cities have endorsed the concept, according to the Sierra Club, as have 150 major corporations that are part of the RE100 coalition.
But in the months since California passed its 100 percent clean energy mandate, the idea has gained significant political momentum.
Voters in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin elected new governors in November who signed a pledge from the League of Conservation Voters to support 100 percent clean energy by 2050. In several states, the new governors mark a dramatic shift from their predecessors.
In Maine, for instance, Democrat Janet Mills has replaced Republican Paul LePage, who issued a moratorium on new wind turbines and vetoed a bill to study how climate change would affect the state.
In Oregon, voters reelected Gov. Kate Brown, who also signed the League of Conservation Voters’ 100 percent clean energy pledge. In New Mexico, newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned on a promise of 80 percent renewable energy by 2040 and has touted California’s 100 percent clean energy law as a success story. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also announced his support last month for 100 percent climate-friendly energy.
David Bookbinder, chief counsel for the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., described the groundswell of support for 100 percent clean energy policies as a “political trend” first and foremost.
"These are all governors who are Democrats, and they’re all trying to be progressive. And saying ‘100 percent renewables’ is money in the bank as far as their base is concerned,” Bookbinder said.
The Niskanen Center encourages politicians to support a carbon tax as an economically efficient way to reduce emissions. Still, Bookbinder described the expanding support for 100 percent clean energy as a positive development in the fight against climate change. It shows that the public is beginning to take the problem seriously, he said, and that lawmakers see “political mileage” in committing to ambitious climate action.
A view of wind turbines from Highway 14 in California.